The initial results of Megyn Kelly‘s move to NBC premiered Sunday night with her newsmagazine Sunday Night, a show whose blandly simple title is inadvertently revealing. This was a show so free of adornment and polish that it came off as hard and alienating. It seemed the sort of thing you pull together when you’re in a rush and are hopeful no one will notice cut corners. It showed both the extremely high value NBC News has placed on Kelly, its new marquee star, as well as the challenges she faces calibrating her act for her new network.
Kelly’s talent as a broadcasting provocateur is undeniable. She became the Fox News anchor even detractors could love by placing unexpected topspin on questions (including, most notoriously, to candidate Donald Trump during a 2015 televised debate). Booking Vladimir Putin as her first guest was, on its face, both the sort of “get” news organizations live for and notionally a good match for a gifted questioner. But, in this case, it was a risk that didn’t pay off. The Russian leader answered through a translator, making entirely impossible to maintain the verve of regular conversation. But it was her questions that fell short.
Kelly’s core audience—”middle American” viewers—may see Putin as most interesting for the ways in which he directly does or does not interface with U.S. political figures. But asking him about his ties to Michael Flynn, or about whether he was personally blackmailing Donald Trump, elicited too-easy denial. Kelly’s questions seemed conceived under the notion that Putin might admit to being some sort of global super villain. And thus they were dispatched by Putin as fantasy. Without much substance, the interview offered nothing much beyond footage of NBC’s pricey signature star asking aggressively phrased questions. This amounts to “holding someone accountable” as theater. Everyone goes home unscathed in this scenario—and unburdened with new information. Better would have been to ask him about gay oppression in Chechnya or his control of the press at home.
All of this was true enough of Kelly’s first attempt at a newsmagazine, on Fox last year. Then she interviewed Donald Trump after his campaign against her. And then she managed to get provocative insight out of Trump. This time, it was the Diet Coke equivalent of geopolitics—no aftertaste, no calories, and too much caffeine. The whole of Sunday Night raced by in a similar manner. Segments by Cynthia McFadden and Harry Smith about, respectively, the pharmaceutical industry and an elephant sanctuary, were executed with a bracing lack of depth, even though they certainly had the time after the brief Putin interview. (The show is an hour long.)
This isn’t NBC’s first attempt at a prestigious newsmagazine show to compete with CBS’ 60 Minutes and to take the place that Dateline (now a true-crime series) once occupied. Rock Center, helmed by Brian Williams, fell apart before its star did.
Kelly may yet find her footing. Her talent is for turning an issue on its axis to expose an unconsidered angle and to maintain control in big-ticket interviews. Hers is a sort of soft populism—asking the questions no other journalist would ask not because they’re novel but because they’re kind of basic. Kelly had moments of luck in Fox News when up against interview subjects who were presented to the audience as risible in a sort of kayfabe way. But an interview on the level ground of a network newsmagazine is more challenging. (And, in the case of Putin, too challenging.)
This aspect of Kelly will likely suit her other show—a morning program that’s set to compete against Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest’s klatsch come fall. Kelly is fortunate, too, that Ripa is as against-the-ropes as she’s been in memory, saddled with a cohost whose reputation for hard work can’t conceal his lack of chemistry with other human beings. Kelly and Ryan has become a daily set of two duelling monologues.
Kelly is unabashed in her ambition to be Oprah Winfrey—not just in the sense that Winfrey was the defining media figure of her era but also in all of the self-help, nourishing-the-soul connotations. Splitting her persona in two—going light in the morning and hitting heavy at night—makes sense. But it’s evidently not easily done. Sunday Night bears all the markings of a show that wants to be taken seriously. But the haste with which it seems to have been made hid all of Kelly’s most appealing qualities—the joy she brings to winning an argument, the recognition of what viewers want. If the show’s going to succeed, Kelly, a very particular sort of talent, is going to have to bring a bit more of her Fox act to the Peacock network.